There is a little bit of director Mira Nair in all of her films. She introduced audiences to a lively Punjabi family much like her own in the international hit Monsoon Wedding, while in her latest film, The Namesake, Nair sought to capture an American immigrant experience similar to the journey she took upon coming to the U.S. from India as a young student. The movie, which opens today, is a compelling interpretation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s celebrated novel about a Bengali couple, Ashima and Ashoke, who leave Calcutta to build a life and family together in New York; and their American-born son, Gogol, who grapples with his cross-cultural identity. Nair spoke with EW.com about the tragic loss that led her to The Namesake, why she portends an Oscar for one extraordinary performance in the film, and her upcoming project with Johnny Depp.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I thought the actors who played Ashima and Ashoke were incredible. Did you have actors in mind when you were casting the film?
MIRA NAIR: Irrfan Khan, who played Ashoke, is someone I discovered when he was 18 years old and he worked in my first film, Salaam Bombay!. I had given him a big part as one of the street kids, but he was too tall and too well nourished to be a street kid so I had to un-cast him and give him a tiny role. Since then, I have been looking for something that deserves his talent. He was always from moment one Ashoke, but otherwise, Ashima [played by Tabu], and Gogol [played by Kal Penn] and everyone else [auditioned], so I feel very much in this movie that an ”angel of casting” was over me. And Tabu is a very big star in India — she is someone I have known personally for many years.
This is her first Hollywood film?
First Hollywood film, and she’s extraordinary, do remember her at this time, next year. [Laughs.]
When did you first become interested in adapting this book?
This book sort of hit me like a bolt of lightning. In February 2005, my mother-in-law died [because of] malpractice in a New York hospital, and we buried her absolutely not prepared to lose her. I read [The Namesake] completely in a state of mourning, and I felt a shock of recognition that Jhumpa Lahiri understood exactly what I was going through. It was like a fever. I had two films I was supposed to make but I just dropped everything, and nine months after reading the book I was shooting the movie. I haven’t worked that fast on anything; I’m like a bulldozer my friends call me. [Laughs.]
The novel covers a lot of time and space. How did you determine what was crucial and what to leave out?
You know, any adaptation is about sifting, and right from the word go I wanted the film to rest on two pillars. I wanted to make an exquisite adult love story of [Ashoke and Ashima], coming from a generation where it’s about, like, literally having a cup of tea in the stillness of a morning and the way you look at each other, rather than what we are so used to in our tangle of the younger culture, you know, roses and diamonds. But this is not Ashoke and Ashima, this is not their generation, and for me it was clear to make that love story and then counterpoint it with Gogol’s coming of age. It was clear from moment one that we wouldn’t deal with Gogol’s high school or Yale years. And once I sorted out this idea of the two cities [New York and Calcutta] as one, that was the glue [by] which I kind of meshed the passage of time. That’s how it really began.
Some of your recent high-profile projects have been literary adaptations: Vanity Fair, now The Namesake, and the upcoming Shantaram with Johnny Depp. Why were you inspired to create movies out of these novels?
It’s not like I’m on a path to look at only the major books. I’m very at home with original screenplays — [take for example] Salaam Bombay! or Monsoon Wedding — and I’ve just finished another short film last month which is an original screenplay. But I explained how The Namesake happened, and Shantaram is a monumental story [in India]. It’s about an Australian heroin addict [played by Johnny Depp] who disappears from Australia in the ’80s and comes to Bombay. There he meets up with everyone in the underworld. He becomes a doctor in a slum, and he meets people who are so different from him, and who teach him who he is, essentially. It’s an amazing tale. And I think it’s about time we got this continuum between East and West done right because it is so rarely done right. And you know Johnny Depp is such an extraordinary actor. He has such curiosity and humility about the world — he’s perfect for [the part].